- - Wednesday, July 5, 2017


By Mary McCarthy

Edited by Thomas Mallon

Library of America, $90, 2,066 pages

When I heard this spring that the Library of America, that magisterial institution devoted to the most important American writers, had finally gotten around to bestowing the accolade of inclusion in its ranks to Mary McCarthy’s fiction, I had two visceral reactions.

First, what took them so long? After all, it’s nearly three decades since she died, nearly four since her last novel. And secondly, why have they not brought out simultaneously a collection of her non-fiction? After all, it is very nearly the equal of — and in the case of its finest exemplum, her stunning memoir “Memories of a Catholic Girlhood” — surpasses her fine novels and short stories.

Unlike many writers, whose fictive and directly expository writing seem to come from different people, McCarthy’s entire oeuvre is unusually holistic.

To take nothing away from the powers of imaginative invention of characters and situations that make her fiction sparkle, even there she is deeply concerned with accuracy and truth. When I say truth, I don’t just mean getting the details and facts right. But I stress even more the deep truth of exploring ideas and ideologies, trends and fashions in belief, behavior and what drives them, among a host of other complex issues.

It is thus no accident that the last years of McCarthy’s life were devoted not to writing more fiction but rather having to fend off ruination at the hands of that monster of intellectual and artistic dishonesty and falsification of historical fact, Lillian Hellman.

It was a quintessentially McCarthian moment when she called her longtime adversary in the cultural wars of their time a dishonest writer whose every word, including “and” and “the” was a lie.

The much wealthier Hellman transformed a valid artistic judgment and verdict into a vicious lawsuit blatantly intended more to impoverish McCarthy than vindicate herself — thus proving that she was an intellectual thug and bully, something you could not accuse McCarthy of, for all that her formidable intellect and sharp tongue was capable of inducing fear in some of the greatest minds of her time.

The fact that most of these figures among the fabled “New York Intellectuals” who held such sway in mid-20th century American literary, political and intellectual discourse were male did not seem to bother McCarthy one bit. Although she did not flaunt her feminism, still less wear it on her sleeve, it is inherent in her oeuvre, whether it be fiction or non-fiction.

In a characteristically subtle way, it is, however, integral to her fiction, which is notable for its profusion of strong, fully realized women and their situations. Not coincidentally, her male characters have more than their fair share of dominating figures and outright villains, perhaps reflecting the bruises incurred in all that fearless combat with the best and brightest stars in the elevated circles where she moved.

One of the very few faults I can find in her largely admirable fiction is that she is far better at evoking and examining the motivations and emotions of women than of men, too many of whom — although by no means all — are seen from the outside, largely in their effect on the ladies in their life.

And her portraits of males can be merciless in exposing their unattractive traits. Who can forget Henry Mulcahy, the anti-hero of “The Groves of Academe,” one of the finest as well as the most devastating portraits of academic life ever written, as timely today as when it was written over half a century ago? One of the strengths of Ms. McCarthy’s fiction is that the quality in life and in her essays which gave her the undoubtedly patronizing, but nonetheless deserved, inevitable nickname “Mistress Mary Quite Contrary” is pretty much absent there.

Rather, it is the title of her collection of short stories, “Cast a Cold Eye” (itself a quote from W.B. Yeats), which best sums up her fictive stance, which combines detachment with genuine empathy to a remarkable degree. Not to mention one of the most controlled and crystalline of prose styles. Consider the ending of her novel “A Charmed Life,” something I have remembered through all the decades since first I read it:

“Around a blind curve ahead, she saw the faint reflection of the headlights of a car, coming rapidly toward her Martha slowed down and hugged her own side of the road. As the car crashed into her and she heard a shower of glass, she knew, in a wild flash of humor, that she had made a fatal mistake: in New Leeds, after sundown, she would have been safer on the wrong side of the road. ‘Killed instantly,’ she said to herself, regretfully, as she lost consciousness. This succinct appraisal, in the wavy blackness, became a point of light receding until she could find it no more.”

So immerse yourself in this marvelous compendium of Mary McCarthy’s fiction, which is never less than worthwhile and, at its best, provides some of the most consistently interesting and revealing examples of 20th century American literature. And hope for a similar collection of that marvelous nonfiction in the not-too-distant future.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.

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